Can’t breathe, can’t sleep, can’t even think about ever laughing again—you know the feeling. When a relationship falls apart, it can feel like your world is falling apart with it. A breakup can take an otherwise perfectly sane, happy person and turn them into a sad, quivering mess. In my practice, I see a lot of these transformations. I get at least several new clients every week who are so traumatized by a difficult break up that they have decided to seek therapy for the first time.
For people in their early twenties, the breakup may be the end of their first significant, meaningful, adult relationship. For those who are bit older, who may have already experienced that first ever heartbreak, each break up after that can seem like getting stuck in an interminable search for the right partner. Either way, break ups can be painful.
In fact, a breakup can be the most difficult thing a person has ever experienced. Break ups touch so many issues at once: sadness, security, self-esteem, role identity, and even sexuality. The sadness and anxiety can amount to feelings of panic, obsession, and depression. A person with obsessive-compulsive tendencies might suddenly feel the need to check their ex’s Facebook page incessantly, while a more depressive person might ruminate on self-doubt. Whether or not a person reaches a clinical level, the feelings can be very intense.
If the aftermath of a breakup begins to affect your mental health and general well-being, it’s time to do something about it. But how do you go from crying into your pillow to riding off into the sunset with a fresh perspective? Getting past a breakup involves small and large steps—from a simple task you can do right now to more intangible actions that require some soul-searching. I hope the following tips help guide you past the breaking point.
1. Learn a New Language or Skill
Do you see your ex’s name everywhere you look? Do the smallest things, even the most mundane objects, remind you of him or her? This happens because so much of our experiences are linked with that other person. However, when we learn new things, we get to have brand new experiences that are completely our own. Learning a new language, for example, gives your mind too much of a cognitive load to continue being focused on memories of an ex. Open yourself up to new languages, people, and cultures. Make the world feel a little bigger.
Even if learning a new language isn’t for you, consider other things you would like to take on like a pottery class, wine tasting club, or gym membership. Choose a class that lasts six weeks, so that it becomes built into your schedule and provides you with the chance to get to know new people over time. When we learn new things we achieve a sense of progress and self-improvement that counteract false feelings of rejection or failure that sometimes accompany breakups.
2. Invest in Your Well-Being
This is a time to nurture your body as well as your mind and engage in both emotional and physical self-care. Human beings have a finite amount of self-discipline (this is partly why you might be able to sing and waltz, but not simultaneously). If you’re using a lot of self-discipline to manage urges to contact your ex, it’s okay to splurge a little on yourself. However, it’s important to make sure that the things you’re spending money on will contribute to your self-care. Buy a ticket out of town to visit a good friend or invest in that yoga package. But don’t blow your money on alcohol, unhealthy foods, or even worse, illegal substances, all of which may temporarily lift your spirits but leave you feeling worse in the long run.
3. Remember Why It Didn’t Work Out
Sometimes, exes suddenly seem a lot more attractive when they aren’t around anymore. If you suffer from a case of the rose-colored rearview mirror, keep a list of the top five reasons you’re better off without your ex and review it as needed. Some people keep a copy of the list in their wallet or on their phone so it’s always handy. Others put the list on their bathroom mirror or some other place where they will see it regularly without having to remember to look for it. You may even want to do both if you want to make 100 percent sure you remember the reasons why the relationship had to end.
4. Find a Breakup Buddy
If you have trouble managing urges and impulses, ask a good friend to be your ‘break up buddy.’ This person will keep you accountable whenever you feel a sudden need to contact your ex. So instead of sending that “I miss you” text to your ex late at night, call your breakup buddy who will encourage restraint and help you center yourself. Choose a trusted friend who is patient and a strong communicator.
5. Make a Breakup Mix
Music is a powerful tool; it can influence your mood, affect your thought process, and excite your body. Make a special mix of great breakup songs to keep you motivated. Ask friends for music that helped them through breakups or times of loneliness. Choose songs that make you feel empowered (e.g. “I Will Survive”) rather than those that inspire you to wallow in your misery (e.g. “All By Myself”). Set your phone to wake to your break up mix or use the mix at the gym or on your daily commute. Many times, feelings of sadness and stress get stored in the body. What better way to release them than by moving through your day to music that addresses the emotions you want to release?
6. Get a Massage
No really, it works. When going through a breakup, the body reacts physiologically; it has become so used to positive physical touch that suddenly being without it can feel incredibly difficult. We actually experience increased cortisol, a stress hormone, and decreased dopamine as a result of physical withdrawal from a romantic partner’s physical intimacy. This is true whether you and your ex had a passionate sex life, or even just a cozy, hand-holding, arm-squeezing pattern of affection. Getting some form of healthy touch, such as a massage, can help bridge the gap.
7. Re-Evaluate Yourself and Your Relationship Goals
Breakups can be a good time for self-reflection. Take a look at the kind of partner you want to be and commit to engaging in activities that will help you become that person. For example, if you would like to become more present and patient, try practicing mindfulness. If self-awareness and empathy are issues for you, you might consider keeping a journal or finding a therapist to help you work through these things before jumping into another relationship. If you have issues with financial or physical fitness, do whatever you need to start taking better care of yourself so that you will be more confident in dating.
Be sure to take some time to evaluate your relationships goals. If you know you have a tendency to choose people who are hurtful or undermine you, make sure to address this before, and during, your efforts to start dating anew. Make a list of red flags you have ignored in the past and commit to watching out for these signs moving forward. Read self-help books on topics like codependency, self-esteem, and healthy boundaries. Get a trusted friend, family member, or therapist to help you sort through new dating experiences and watch for signs of trouble.
You Can Find Happiness Again!
Emotional discomfort doesn’t always mean something has gone wrong. Agonizing over the end of a relationship often signifies that you made yourself vulnerable, you opened yourself up to another person, and you are capable of connection. If met with awareness and intention, a breakup can actually help you learn to choose a better partner and redefine your boundaries better in the future.
Often, the pain of a break up ends when you can fully acknowledge that even though parts of the relationship were great, it doesn’t mean that ending the relationship was a mistake. When you miss your college days, do you take it as a sign that graduating and moving on wasn’t meant to be? Past relationships are also necessary for learning and growing. I hope you take the opportunity for self-discovery, growth, and emotional progress so that you can find happiness again!